by Jeremiah OConnor
The Rufus & Louise Reiberg Reading Series at IUPUI hosts a reading by writer and essayist Amy Butcher on Thursday, April 13, at 7:30 p.m. in the IUPUI University Library Lilly Auditorium, 755 West Michigan Street. Amy Butcher received a B.A. from Gettysburg College and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. She is currently the Director of Creative Writing and an Associate Professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University. Her 2018 essay, “Women These Days,” was listed as a Best Of 2018 essay by Entropy Magazine and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and for inclusion in the Best American Essays series by the editors at Brevity Magazine. Butcher is the author of the nonfiction books Visiting Hours (Penguin-Random House, 2015) and Mothertrucker: Finding Joy on the Loneliest Road in America (Little A Books, 2021). About Mothertrucker, Publisher’s Weekly wrote that the book is “tender and gripping, “[Mothertrucker] explores myriad issues with nuance and grace, including Indigenous rights, violence against women, religious hypocrisy, and environmental concerns.”
Ms. Butcher recently took some time to answer a few questions about her writing and her life prior to her upcoming visit to IUPUI on April 13th, at the University Library Lilly Auditorium.
As aspiring writers at the undergraduate level, there is always a fear of rejection. What are some of the obstacles that writers should be mindful of?
I think the most important thing I could possibly offer here is not to be precious about your work. As Ann Lamott writes, most first drafts are “shitty,” and I think most tenth and fifteenth drafts are, too. You have to detach yourself from the drafts you make; you have to appreciate what was necessary about each draft to get the manuscript closer to where you want it to be, but you have to be absolutely ruthless. I often tell my own writers about a graduate school mentor who said of my fifteen-page essay, in front of everyone, “This begins on page 8.” And later, in his office, privately, he read aloud the final two pages and lowered his glasses, offering gently but earnestly, “This just isn’t very good, is it?” I can laugh about it now, but it was a devastating feeling, not the least of which because I admired this man and his writing so much, and I had the sensation I had wasted his time. But I’d only wasted his time if I didn’t listen to him. He was right. The essay began on page 8. It ended on page 13. It was a 5-page essay masquerading as a 15-page essay, and that’s not to say there wasn’t good writing, or even a lot of it, but the piece itself was buried in unnecessary, redundant, meandering text and then a dense chunk of over-writing. The moment you can get deeply critical about your work, when you can lop off eight pages and throw them out, despite however much time or effort or beauty or sentimentality went into them, that’s when you become a real writer.
Mothertrucker is unique in terms of writing style. There are very descriptive scenes blended with portions of memoir and objective journalism. You found a way to incorporate all this information very seamlessly. Is this style of writing something that you developed organically during your journey with Joy, or is the style something you have been developing over the years?
This is a compliment couched in a question and I’m really grateful for it—thank you. After my first book, Visiting Hours, I decided I wanted to try to write something entirely different, which meant teaching myself a new ‘trick,’ so to say, and that trick was writing about an outside subject and environment. The best way I know how to teach myself something new as a writer is to study the great writers—both storied and contemporary—who do this well, so I designed a new writing workshop at my university, called Magazine Feature Writing, which focused on the study and implementation of long-form narrative literary journalism. We read a lot of incredible pieces by authors including Kerry Howley (“Hunter Rebecca Francis Has A Thing Or Two To Teach Us About The Wild”), Jennifer Percy (“I’ll Never Stop Searching”), John Jeremiah Sullivan (“Upon This Rock,”), Leslie Jamison (“The Devil’s Bait”), and numerous other writers whose works employ narrative nonfiction techniques alongside reported journalism to examine a living subject, place, or experience. To supplement their reading, I designed a number of writing exercises that would help students practice these skills and this emmeshing, and I worked alongside of them, taking the course as an opportunity to study and practice new techniques and skills. Eventually, I determined my own subject (Joy Ruth Wiebe) and place (northern Alaska), and I came into the project feeling invigorated and excited to try something new. I’d never expected my own journey to fold in alongside hers, but as a memoirist, for better or worse, I found the story fit in a way I deemed meaningful, not only for the numerous differences between Joy and I (and the abusive partnerships, unfortunately, we had in common), but because her death, in many ways, gave new meaning to the new life I was just beginning, in large part to her.
Was there something that drew you to Joy “Mothertrucker” Wiebe on Instagram? Religion is discussed throughout the book. You were not raised in a religious household. The journey that you and your friend took in April of 2018 seemed to be very special and magical and almost predetermined to happen. Do you ever reflect on spiritual aspect of the situation and how you were both able to get your stories out?
I felt called to Joy—language I’ve borrowed from believers—because I could sense her strong sense of self and her resilience. I felt I had neither at the time, despite much masquerading. Of course, I didn’t know what had made her that way—life circumstances, abusive relationships—or how necessary it was to her sense of safety and well-being and that of her dependent daughter. I intentionally borrowed and employed religious language throughout this text because it was such a fundamental part of how I experienced Joy; if to believers God is this figure to whom you feel no fear, because you know He is in control, well, that was what Joy was to me. I trusted her implicitly. I would’ve gone with her anywhere. Especially after she opened up to me and shared the complications of her present, which she—by no means—had to do. She pulled back the curtain so I could see what I stood to gain by staying with a man like Dave, by believing I could endure it, or out-patient or out-love him. As an atheist, I think I really needed that figure, and I found her in a woman.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming and young writers?
Beyond detaching yourself from your work, as I mention above, I think my best advice is to read, read, read: read everything and anything, different genres, different authors, different forms and voices. As a young writer, I remember being so utterly consumed by anxiety and fear and worry about my ‘voice,’ but the truth is my voice is different in every manuscript I write because it is always being shaped by the authors I’m reading in that moment. I tell my own writers that there is no such thing as writer’s block; it’s a copout that belies that you’re not reading good material. And when you’re not reading good material, of course you’re going to have a hard time putting out something good. Read. And let go of ideas of which genre you’re meant to write in, which genres are artful or not. Read everything and watch the words you write get sharper, more urgent, more specific. I also believe in sleeping. I’m a terrible writer if I don’t keep a regular and healthy sleeping schedule, whatever that might look like to each of you. It could be 2am-10am, so long as you’re getting those hours.
Are there any new projects that you are currently working on, and if so, can you give us a sneak preview and discuss the inspiration behind the project?
I am currently at work on a collection of essays that explore and examine concepts of legitimacy and believability as they relate to and shape the lives of female-presenting Americans. The collection illuminates the ongoing ways countless women’s lives have been disrupted by systemic, symbolic, and literal violence; the collection currently holds as its focal point the incarceration narrative of a woman who was the victim of long-term and severe predation by a guardian that began when she was just a juvenile. Like Mothertrucker, this new project will also implement elements of narrative nonfiction (“scenework”) alongside thoroughly reported literary journalism and advanced immersive narrative techniques, ideally to render the reader a present witness to the lives of my subjects. The project draws currently on the richly reported and landscape-altering work of feminist literary influences Nikki Giovanni, Lisa Taddeo, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Rebecca Solnit, and Melissa Febos, among others, and the narrative genius of Jo Ann Beard, T Kira Madden, and Leslie Jamison, ultimately abutting and engaging larger conversations on sexuality, race, and status as they intersect with gender. While I’m hoping this collection will invariably involve the deeply investigated profiles of a myriad of American subjects, each essay will work as an independent and intersectional exploration into the long-term effects and consequences of a culture that continually posits that women are not reliable witnesses to their own world.
Ms. Butcher’s reading is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served. Parking is available in the North Street Garage, 819 W. North St.